(first posted 8/4/2015) After the fuel crisis, it took the major US auto manufacturers the rest of the 1970s to fully respond with roomy, fuel-efficient family cars. They all did it by building compact cars first, and then making them bigger. And they all succeeded, at least on paper, delivering competent sedans that could seat at least 5 without unreasonable discomfort, all the while delivering north of 30 MPG. Even Chrysler, on its way back from the brink again, got into the act. They made all the right moves with their new mid-sized E-Class, except perhaps badging it as a Chrysler.
GM mastered the process right out of the gate. You might never guess that its front-wheel-drive A bodies were based on the X body – they shared a wheelbase and many mechanical components. The X’s capacious interior had been a marvel in the compact class, and its dimensions carried over into the A pretty much intact. But GM did the rest pretty much right, restyling the cars completely. The major criticism might be the long front and rear overhangs to give the car mid-sized length. But otherwise, GM succeeded: the X and the A are even said to drive like very different cars.
Over at Ford, you might just guess that the mid-sized LTD/Marquis were based on the ostensibly compact Fairmont/Zephyr, given the strong family resemblance. I say ostensibly because that original Fox body was pretty large for a compact. The late 70s and early 80s were a transitional period in car size-class labeling and the Fairmont was that transition’s poster child. Upon its release, it was a ton smaller than the porcine mid-sized LTD II, so Ford called it a compact. But as Ford realigned its offerings for a new fuel-conscious world, they restyled the Fairmont (for the better, I might add), called it the new LTD — and declared it mid-sized. Ah, marketing. It was also the only rear-wheel-driver of the bunch.
But Chrysler was still in full-on struggle mode with few resources. So to make its mid-sized E, it started by stretching its front-wheel-drive K – and then kept a good number of K body and interior elements. I’m sure everything from the B pillar forward is the same. Yet somehow, stylistically, it worked. Of the original angular K derivatives, the Es were mighty good looking. Ok, that’s a subjective call. But even if you disagree, it’s hard to deny that the styling was in swing with the time.
The tail lights tell you that this is an ’83 E-Class. For ’84, the tail lights wrapped around the corners.
Hey! I know! Let’s imitate Mercedes with some body-colored wheel covers.
Inside, the E Class was hardly luxurious. It did have upper-level standard features like power windows, but those cloth seats wouldn’t have been unusual in a contemporary Dodge. Maybe Chrysler should have called this car the Newport, for that’s the niche it filled, in a front-wheel-drive way.
And for ’83, that was the nicest interior you could buy in your E-Class. With lesser interiors you lost the pillowy look, and you could even wind up in vinyl. Horrors.
Maybe that’s why Chrysler’s New Yorker crushed the E-Class in sales. It’s the same stretched K; that padded, extended rear roof panel covers up the rear quarter windows. But you couldn’t get leather seats in your E until you stepped up to the New Yorker. Apparently, that’s what Chrysler buyers really wanted in the early 1980s: the appearance of luxury. Because really, the New Yorker was just a smallish four-cylinder car.
But hey, at least you got a crystal Pentastar hood ornament on the E-Class. Thaaaaaaaat says luxury.
Still, the New Yorker’s success is why the E-Class survived just two model years. So that Chrysler-Plymouth dealers would still have an everyday mid-sized sedan to sell, Chrysler decontented the car a little, tacked on a more pedestrian front clip, and rechristened the car the Plymouth Caravelle. It sold for four more years, albeit in about the same numbers than the E-Class. And then Ford introduced its groundbreaking Taurus and the angular Ks all suddenly looked out of date. That didn’t stop GM from cranking out angular As (and making a mountain of dough off them) for another decade, of course.
Somebody clearly loves this E-Class. It’s in fine condition, and is even registered as a collector car. What’s this Colorado car doing in a suburban shopping-center parking lot in Indiana, so far from home?
The owner took great care to park it in an unused portion of the lot so that no neighboring car would ding its finish. Not that the finish was flawless; it shows signs of some wear. But its 30-plus years have been kind to it. And even though I said some blunt things about this car’s place in mid-sized motoring history, I feel pretty kind about it, too. It’s just the kind of quirky old-car choice I’d make.